Death by selfie
SEARCH FOR TRUTH - Ernesto P. Maceda Jr. (The Philippine Star) - September 21, 2019 - 12:00am

It was as epic a selfie fail as you could imagine, the way DITO Telecommunity and the Armed Forces of the Philippines outed themselves by presscon. DITO may have wanted to present the image of a “can do” 3rd telco. Newbies who scaled the mountain without breaking a sweat. Instead, they unleashed the wind.

DITO’s partnership with China Telecom has had its detractors from day one. Not every Filipino has a hood over his eyes or chooses denial when it comes to doing business with China. Our Senators are “disturbed” by this AFP deal. Defense Secretary Lorenzana was “blindsided”. There is a public sense of unease or, at worst, outrage and betrayal. 

Anti Trust. But are we being fair to DITO? As 3rd telco, they do have entitlements. They shouldn’t be disqualified from the opportunities that Smart and Globe also had (but with no selfies). The Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) would even raise the spectre of anti-competitive behavior. DICT Undersecretary Eliseo Rio actually warns that since Smart and Globe, who themselves are using Chinese-made equipment (what else but Huawei), have similar agreements with the AFP, it would be unfair competition to deny DITO the same treatment.

It pays to team up with the AFP. No locations are more secure for the humongous investments in telecommunication facilities than military camps and installations. And, whether in Metro Manila or in the provinces, their areas are prime. SMART and GLOBE, themselves partners of foreign telecommunications companies (NTT of Japan and Singapore Telecom, respectively), were given this opportunity. So why not DITO?

Equal opportunity. Access to the physical facilities should be equally offered to all telcos. Co-locating simply means allowing them the prerogative to ride on facilities in existing military installations. What we should be cautious about is the cost to us or the ex-deal. SMART and GLOBE arrangements involved microwave relays and base stations. It’s not enough that there is a question on the equipment and hardware. It’s with these sweeteners that we end up compromised. “Equipment, upgrades, services, and training...”

Chief of Staff General Benjamin Madrigal concedes that “Our MOA with other telcos significantly improved the ICT infrastructure of the AFP and we are optimistic that this opportunity will also bring great benefits to the armed forces.” Spokesman General Edgar Arevalo states that the deals have been “very instrumental in better operations for our military forces, saving the government millions of pesos in telecommunication services and equipment costs.”

This DITO episode is actually an eye opener. We realize how much of our own military operations have unwittingly been compromised by reliance on the private telcos. Of course, the China connection is top of mind. Specially since, as Senators Pangilinan and Hontiveros point out, their corporations are compelled by Chinese law to collect information for the state. But any exposure to telcos with foreign partners arguably increases the levels of susceptibility to security breaches. The digital world is still talking about the hijacking of google data and internet traffic into China last year. So the question is why should we risk the exposure at all, to any foreign interest?

Perhaps it’s time we revisit the best option of the military establishing its own communications facilities. Forget the millions saved. And this is not novel. TRANSCO, at one time, even campaigned to become the 3rd telco. 

Trust me. DITO weakly assures the public that it has a cybersecurity plan in place as required by the AFP. A cybersecurity plan in which partner China Telecom was excluded? Vice President Leni Robredo, the Senators are having none of it. This same degree of skepticism will persist for as long as China Telecom is involved.

Deliver us. The League of Provinces of the Philippines (LPP) has sought President Rodrigo Roa Duterte’s “prudent intercession” to implement  Mandanas vs. Ochoa, at once. This is the landmark decision that expanded the revenue base from which the Internal Revenue Allotments (IRA) to local government units (LGUs) are computed. Already, LGUs await a windfall equivalent to approximately additional P300 billion annually. Manila Mayor Francisco Moreno Domagoso is counting the days until Manila returns to the top as richest LGU.

By the terms of the decision, it will be implemented in 2022. The economic team would even have this pushed back if possible. But the decision has been made. Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo: “Due to the various commitments of the President to the people, such as the implementation of programs designed to combat crime and corruption, as well as activities of the national government to promote human development and poverty reduction, to name a few, it was agreed that the adjustment of the IRA may not be feasibly effected during this administration.”

The invocation of human development and poverty reduction activities is actually curious. One of the stated reasons for the LPP’s entreaty is precisely the downloading to them of responsibilities to implement the Universal Health Care Law. 

Panelo’s explanation confirms how an administration’s priorities dictate policy. I vividly recall how in the first month of my father’s service in the post Martial Law Senate, he noticed that in the budget presented to Congress, it was the Defense Department that had the largest slice of the pie (likely as a hangover of Martial law realities). Of course, he pointed this out by privilege speech and in the budget hearings. This entitlement, per Constitutional fiat, belonged to the education sector. Accordingly, this priority to education was actualized. 

A rising tide lifts all boats. It’s good that the administration is prioritizing social spending. Already PRRD has topped the Benigno C. Aquino years. Ideally a fixed percentage of GDP, studies of the Asian Development Bank show that the country needs to spend an average of 3.48 to 5.58 percent of GDP to fill social protection gaps. Social welfare, social assistance, universal social pensions, transfers to the young. In the end, pouring into social spending redounds to the benefit of all.

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